It was an unexpected double success for Blue Origin as the private spaceflight company carried out its first in-flight test of its crew capsule escape system this Wednesday. At about 8:42 am PDT, the unmanned capsule touched down on the floor of the West Texas desert after successfully rocketing away from its New Shephard booster. But in an unexpected twist, the reusable launch stage also survived and landed safely for the fifth time after a brief journey into space.
Originally scheduled for 8:00 am PDT, the flight was delayed due to a series of unspecified holds that required the resetting of the New Shepard's autonomous launch and flight systems. When the green light was finally given, the booster and its unmanned capsule lifted off from the Blue Origin test facility at about 8:37 am PDT.
With its BE-3 engine belching 110,000 lb of thrust, New Shepard rose into the sky as it has on four previous occasions, but today's test was different from the others. Forty-five seconds into the flight, the capsule cut loose and a solid rocket motor with 70,000 lb of thrust ignited, throwing it clear of New Shepard as it would have if there had been a real flight emergency.
After separation, the capsule deployed drogue chutes and then the main chutes, slowing it down enough for a safe landing. Meanwhile, New Shepard, which was not expected to survive the capsule separation, continued on into space as its automatic systems compensated for the sudden loss of the 8,000-lb (3,600-kg) payload, the sudden increase in drag, and being hit in the face by a solid rocket exhaust at the moment of maximum flight stress. Following its flight program, it continued to its maximum altitude on a suborbital trajectory before returning to land safely using its main engine to set itself down.
According to Blue Origin, today's in-flight escape system test was the first to be conducted since the Little Joe flight in the 1950s and '60s to test NASA's escape systems for the Mercury and Apollo space capsules. A company spokeswoman says both the New Shepard booster and capsule will be retired, though replacement units are currently under construction.
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